Eating My One-Year-Old’s Leftover Smash Cake
I imagined my daughter’s first birthday party with a Pinterest-worthy smash cake, the first cake I would bake since I became a mother. Fluffed pastry with pockets of air, surrounded by thick buttercream frosting piped into blooming swirls that would float like pale pink clouds.
Instead, I decided to go the healthy route: a banana and oatmeal cake that baked into a brick, with coconut cream frosting that disintegrated while I layered it on with a spatula, matted and wet.
A smash cake is exactly what it sounds like — a cake meant to be ripped apart by a delighted one-year-old for a first birthday photo op. Their opportunity to indulge the impulse to mash and burrow themselves into their food. A truly wonderful gift for a toddler, something thick, sweet, and completely their own.
My daughter dug her hands into the slick, perpetually melting coconut cream from her healthy cake and licked it from her fingers. She tried one piece and pushed it out of her mouth with her tongue.
One year and nine months before, I would never have thought that I’d be terrified to feed my daughter the frosted vanilla cake I baked for her party guests.
“Your test was positive,” the nurse said. “You have Gestational Diabetes.” It was the phone call I dreaded.
“What now?” I was crushed. From the moment they’d taken my weight at my first OB appointment twenty weeks prior, it was all I heard: You are overweight, and therefore you’re at risk for gestational diabetes. Cut down on carbs. Don’t gain any more weight. Everything I consumed during my pregnancy I threw up. Still, I ate less and exercised more, moving my tired bones up flights of stairs for hours.
“Cut down on sweets. Stop eating things like cookies and cake.”
Cake. They kept repeating it — don’t eat cake — as if I had been shoveling it down my throat after every meal. I will never forget the OB who said, before I had even been diagnosed, “If you don’t stop eating cookies and cake you will develop Gestational Diabetes. Do you want to hurt your baby?”
“I don’t eat those things,” I replied.
She raised her eyebrows as if she didn’t believe me, turning her chair and snapping her folder shut in a brusque, dismissive gesture. She wouldn’t meet my eyes as she rattled off a list of potential health threats that could come from a diagnosis. My placenta might deteriorate faster, and I would be at risk for type 2 diabetes. My baby could have weight problems, she might be too big, leading to a C-section. She might have low blood sugar when I delivered or shoulder dystocia. Her message was clear and I absorbed it. If I didn’t lose weight, I would develop GD. I would hurt my baby.
Months later, the same OB delivered my perfectly healthy daughter after 57 hours of labor. She threatened to cut me open 3 hours into pushing if it took me much longer. She called in the NICU, whispered to the attending nurses “probably shoulder dystocia,” and used a vacuum that planted a purple and black bruise on my daughter’s head like an open dying flower.
After my diagnosis, I was handed a pamphlet with a meal plan, a package of needles, and a glucose meter. I was told that diet control was crucial, and that insulin would only be given as a last resort. This is common among women with Gestational Diabetes. There is no extra help for your body to fight the inevitable rise of blood sugar.
The meter was inconsistent and difficult to use. The first time I took my blood sugar I pricked my finger sixteen times before I found a test strip that didn’t give me an error screen. My husband came home to find me frustrated and crying, bent needles littering the floor around me as I cursed myself and the pulsing pain in my bleeding fingers. I remember the frustration, the fear. The instinct to set the needle down and rest was overcome by my manic need to know the number, to be certain that I had done everything right.
I began to deteriorate, my spirit and body heavy and crumbling. I measured food by the ounce and counted grains of rice. When my glucose numbers climbed I pared down my carbs even more until I was dangerously hungry. Needle scars wormed their way down the tips of my fingers, and my skin became calloused and numb. I was obsessed with my blood sugar so I could offer proof in my glucose numbers that I was doing everything possible, and the stress ate into my sleep. I feared a large baby who would struggle with weight problems just like I had. I feared that it would be my fault. The joyful moments of tracking my child’s developments were chiseled away by the gnawing question that had been planted in my mind: Had I hurt my baby?
No one bothered to correct me.
Gestational Diabetes is a genetic disorder. Hormones from the placenta create an insulin deficiency, causing blood sugar levels to rise to dangerous heights without receding fast enough. Its origin is unknown to medical professionals, but this fact was not relayed to me as I stood on the scale during those early visits. Instead, GD became a scare tactic used by doctors unable to look me in the eyes while they threw vague and nonspecific threats into the air.
As a woman who has struggled with weight for most of her life, healthy eating has always been important to me. I often wonder what kind of conversation I might have had with my OB if they had taken me seriously when I told them this. If maybe they would have told me the truth that would relieve me from my excessive self-blame and demoralization. You cannot prevent gestational diabetes. You can only decrease your chances of developing it. And I possessed uncontrollable factors that would increase my risk at an overwhelming percentage: overweight, a history of diabetes in the family, Hispanic.
Do you want to hurt your baby? It has taken me a year of her life to forget the way those words sounded, a shrill ring around my head like a coin circling a metal bowl.
She was born perfect, a tiny healthy thing. I breathed into her a wish, and I often fear it won’t come true. I never want someone else to make my child think she is unworthy or subject to something horrible simply because of the way she looks.
For her first birthday, I told myself I would let her have something sweet for the first time. I would make her a cake and let her eat as much as she wanted, I would try to be the mother who doesn’t push her children into irrational fears that prevent them from enjoying life. But my anxiety won. Instead, I baked her a healthy brick she refused to eat. So, while she napped in her pink birthday tutu, I scraped off the baby drool mixed frosting and ate her leftover smash cake myself.
I met a sweet mother just a few months earlier, similar in size to me, with beautiful almond eyes and a peppering of freckles across her nose. She held her tiny six-week-old asleep on her breast and told me how she had been pushed to eat less while pregnant, without any question of whether or not there was a history of diabetes in her family, and without any inquiry into her diet and exercise routine. It was a scare tactic to shame her into losing weight, and she endured the already tumultuous journey navigating Gestational Diabetes with little to no help, believing that she did something horribly and irreversibly wrong to deserve the outcome.
As mothers, we are so easily convinced to shoulder any blame, and so quickly shamed into never speaking about it. We are on display to a plethora of judgments and assumptions, and although we are far from perfect, we never believe we are enough.
For the first year of my daughter’s life, I went to every pediatrician appointment ready to be scolded. I made a mental list of explanations for every choice I made and braced for accusations that never came. When she was small, I put her to sleep on her back like I was told, and somehow she always wiggled onto her side or her tummy. I would sit at the edge of the crib and watch her back rise and fall, I would check on her incessantly during the night, press my finger against her nose to feel her warm breath on my skin.
While eating her leftover smash cake, it suddenly seemed silly that such a thing could be so important to me. The instinct will fade. I’ll chip away at it slowly. I still carry calluses on my fingers from the needles, and I am cautious in situations where I used to be free. I try not to wonder if I’ve done something wrong, I try not to worry. I hope there will come a day when I no longer do.
The leftover cake pooled in my mouth, soggy and thick, tasting of too-ripe bananas. I smiled and sent a silent apology to my sleeping daughter for expecting her to eat such a thing. Next year, I told myself, she’ll get her cake.
Felicity Landa holds an MFA from UC Riverside Palm Desert and is a graduate of the Cal State Long Beach Creative Writing program, where she earned the Horn Scholarship for her fiction. Her work has appeared in Raising Mothers and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in The Sunlight Press. She currently serves as a fiction editor for the online literary magazine Literary Mama and nonfiction editor for The Coachella Review. To learn more please visit www.felicitylanda.com